Local NewsMeadows to Metropolis


How Las Vegas grew from desert watering hole to top international destination

Aerial view of Summerlin housing houses
Posted at 3:17 PM, Oct 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-30 12:22:30-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Las Vegas is a bustling metropolis forged with neon, innovation and a diverse population of more than 2 million people and counting — but it wasn’t always like this.

In the span of fewer than 200 years, Las Vegas has sprouted from a quiet grassland into one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States.

Click "play" to watch a timelapse of the city's growth:

Imagery: Landsat / Copernicus

Mid-1800s: Oasis in the desert

"Las Vegas is actually a Spanish term, meaning ‘the meadows,’” said Carson Fehner, an interpreter at the Old Mormon Fort State Historic Park.

In the mid-1800s, a group of Mexican traders found “The Meadows” to be a perfect stop on their trips from Santa Fe, N.M., to Los Angeles, Calif.

"Why do they come here? Because of the water," Fehner said.

"The stretch from the Las Vegas Creek to the Muddy River, about 50 miles to the northeast of here, was known as the Jornada del Muerto — or the journey of death — as the longest stretch of the entire old Spanish trail without any water."

Fehner says the valley looked different back then. It was a lush oasis.

"You had the creek running through the middle of the valley here, formed by three springs about three miles to the west of here, the largest of which would have been perhaps the largest spring in the entire Mojave Desert,” Fehner said.

That spring allowed a group of Mormon missionaries to build the first settlement in the valley, which would eventually become a working ranch and the birthplace of the railroad.

“Why would the railroad come here? The same reason that everybody else came here," Fehner said. "The water.”

STAY TUNED: Check KTNV.com and watch 13 Action News on Friday, Oct. 29 as we explore the water issues created by the rapid growth in the Las Vegas valley

"The water is this running current, if you might, throughout history here," he said. "Every story that we have here flows from the year-round presence of water provided by the Las Vegas Creek."

Early 1900s: Contact with the outside world

It was the railroad that led to the establishment of Las Vegas as a city.

On May 15, 1905, 110 acres in what is now downtown Las Vegas were auctioned off by U.S. Senator William Clark of Montana to a group of ready buyers. That railroad linked Salt Lake City, Utah, to Los Angeles and officially put Las Vegas on the map.

This was the "contact with the outside world” that would turn Las Vegas into a boomtown almost overnight, said local historian Robert Stoldal and that identity would stick with the city throughout its history.

The Dam that led to a boom

The next boom took place in the middle of the Great Depression when, in 1930, then-President Herbert Hoover announced plans to build Boulder Dam, which is now Hoover Dam.

"Unemployment was 30%. Unemployed people came by the thousands and took to Southern Nevada, to Las Vegas, looking for a job,” Stoldal said. "And the town, clearly, was unprepared with a small police force, no housing, limited social services. So, it had to learn how to deal with those things overnight."

Las Vegas saw this theme of rapid growth over and over again. Each new installment brought new life to the valley.

"The building of Hoover Dam, I mean, that just really ignited the tourist industry and hospitality in Las Vegas,” said Stoldal.

Another type of boom in Las Vegas

"You do the same thing in the 1940s — it was the federal government with the building of what is now Nellis Air Force Base and the defense plant. Then, into the 1950s, you have the Nevada Test Site, where thousands of workers were brought in by the federal government," Stoldal explained.

Atom Bomb Testing
A mushroom cloud rises from the atomic test site at Nevada, Feb. 18, 1955. (AP Photo)

"So, the federal government, for the first half of the 20th century, was really a driving economic force in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada.”

From the 1980s through the 2000s, tourism and construction skyrocketed with the building of new mega-resorts, bringing thousands of more workers and their families to the valley.

“Southern Nevada was, for decades, the fastest-growing place in the United States,” Stoldal said.

What comes next?

By 2035, Clark County’s population is expected to grow to more than 3 million people, according to the UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research Projects.

The big number raises a big question for Las Vegas residents and leaders: can Las Vegas rise to this challenge?

“How many people can we squeeze into the Las Vegas Valley? There's a limited amount of water. It's getting drier. It's getting hotter. The climate crisis is real. How are we going to deal with that as we develop into the future?” Stoldal asked.

Our series, “Las Vegas: Meadows to Metropolis,” looks to answer that question. Tune in to 13 Action News at 6 p.m. throughout the month of November for in-depth reporting on how rapid growth impacts Las Vegans.